Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Sarah Buss’s “Autonomous Action: Self-Determination in the Passive Mode,” with Commentary by Hilary Bok

(Moving to the Front from Oct 10 and Sept 7, 2012)

Update Oct 19, 2012:  Professor Buss's paper can be accessed here.

Update Oct 10: Discussion will begin October 29th!  A link to Professor Buss's paper will be added shortly.

We are pleased to announce the next installment of Ethics at PEA Soup, which will feature Sarah Buss's article “Autonomous Action: Self-determination in the Passive Mode.”  We are also pleased that Hilary Bok has accepted our invitation to be our Lead Discussant.  Discussion should begin sometime in October, and we'll be sure to keep everyone posted when dates are more settled.

2 Replies to “Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Sarah Buss’s “Autonomous Action: Self-Determination in the Passive Mode,” with Commentary by Hilary Bok

  1. “(W) e determine our actions in the way necessary and sufficient to render us accountable for what we do when and only when our intentions reflect the decisive influence of our nonagential identity as human beings; and this condition is satisfied when and only when our intentions are determined by physiological and psychological states that do not typically prevent human beings from functioning minimally well.”
    Professor Buss:
    So, God forbid, should I become seriously ill, I would no longer be accountable for my conduct? Worse, I’d no longer be myself, nay, less than fully human? Putting aside questions pertaining to Incompatibilism, it still seems possible to act autonomously in the face of one’s afflictions. Let us suppose that I begin to act boorishly towards my caregivers, offering as my excuse the fact that I’m in considerable pain. I cannot meet my basic needs, so my illness qualifies as debilitating, but I am being provided for by others. My hitherto fulfilling activities are also out of the question, plunging me into despair. Meanwhile, the elderly lady down the hall, hurting just as much if not more than I am, is at least not taking it out on the nurses. A lifetime of patiently, prayerfully, enduring lesser discomforts has prepared her to bear the cross at hand. Her serenity, the fruit of that perseverance, is admired by all those with whom she comes into contact. Do you mean to tell me that she should not be commended and I, well, pitied, but deprecated? I have heard it said that we find out what a person is truly like when things aren’t going his way. Didn’t my illness merely bring out, make manifest, my misanthropic side? Ditto for the ‘good patient’ and her serenity? Catholics consider suffering not only meaningful, but potentially redemptive. There appears to be no room for this notion within your philosophy.
    I simply do not share your “asymmetrical” intuitions. Regarding the 3 paradigms, I would say that the agents involved allowed their emotions to get in the way of doing the right thing. People manage all the time to overcome anger, fear, and depression in the pursuit of virtue. They turn the other cheek, ignore their fears, and try to look on the bright side. (Depression is one of the 7 deadly sins.) You make things much too easy. Where is the incentive to develop traits such as forbearance, courage, cheerfulness if excuses of the sort you would accept are readily available? Why shouldn’t we instead hold up as role models those who do manage to act conscientiously in the face of adversity? According to your philosophy, all bets are off as soon as my normally fulfilling activities become too much for me. But, again, why shouldn’t we take how one bears up under severe trials as the true measure of a person? As long as one is in possession of one’s faculties, isn’t one responsible for how one treats others, regardless of one’s physical condition?
    What of akrasia? The above conditions are often taken as causes of weakness of the will- which many take to be perfectly consistent with responsibility. Am I to be let off the hook for my bad behavior once illness induced psychological resistance to doing the right thing appears? Or am I not then required to strengthen my resolve? If I know that I will not be held accountable for wrongdoing attendant upon an illness, where is the incentive to develop self-control? On the flip side, what do I have to live for, in terms of self-actualization, if sickness means I am no longer myself?
    Your thesis yields another asymmetry, curious at least to my mind. When circumstances conspire against me, I’m still rightly expected to do my best: I’m supposed to soldier on, rise to the occasion, pray for greater strength, etc.. But, according to you, when my body begins to fail me, my responsibility diminishes. We hold people accountable in the former instance, even if the difficulty appears insurmountable, why not latter? Why are less than optimal circumstances “not truly me,” especially those I have come to count on? Where is the boundary here? I don’t think you can say one’s skin, since; again, there are calamities that are at least as detrimental to flourishing as any illness. Wars, natural disasters, economic depressions all make it extremely difficult to go about one’s business. Yet praise and blame don’t seem out of place in such exigencies.
    In sum, pain, fear, and suffering, are a part of the human condition. If they become so extreme that I cannot ‘think straight’, then my loss of autonomy is best explained by the Deliberation Account. If not, then since I remain in possession of my faculties, I am still responsible for my conduct, especially how I treat others.
    Smaller points:
    ‘Necessarily, we lack direct control over the direction of our own thinking, no matter which factors influence this direction.’
    As I’m sure you know, Duns Scotus maintained that our ability to summon and dismiss reasons at will was the surest mark of free will. I am inclined to agree.
    ‘This happens, for example, when overpowering fear or pain so “governs” our practical reasoning that we find it impossible to take seriously any alternative to obeying the robber or the rapist or taking pain-numbing drugs. In such cases we may be appropriately responsive to the best reasons we have; yet this responsiveness does not suffice to render us accountable for the effects of our fear or pain or drug-induced fog.’
    Frankfurt once told me at a colloquium that he thought that the prudent mugging victim acted perfectly freely.

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